-The Olive Pickers

Picking olives with Vita, who has worked in the fields since she was 12, alongside several other jobs she does to feed her family and send her older daughter to university. At this time of the year she organizes teams to harvest olives all across the Valle d’Itria, drawing on her extensive contacts, most of whom are women in a similar situation. She makes sure everybody is paid properly, and turns down a lot of bad jobs, although sometimes the conditions are what they are. “On a good season, like this year, there’s more olives on the trees and therefore more money to go around. The price of olive oil also goes up and down, and there’s nothing we can do about that. On a bad year you have to make do, this is how it is in agriculture.”

With its countless small growers who own a few olive trees here and a few over there, Puglia’s olive oil production relies on small teams of freelance pickers, often arranged on a day’s notice because of weather conditions. These women are in the fields at 7, after a long drive across the frozen countryside, and face all their house chores once back from work. It’s a tough life, but it’s still better than getting on the buses and white vans which every morning ferry farm workers, many of whom are teenage girls, to work on large industrial farms. “I never got on those buses”, Vita says quickly, “I heard stories and never like them. I prefer to work on my own, even if it means doing three jobs.” Ensuring proper pay and working conditions all across such a diversified production chain, especially within the context of capitalism and of Italy’s corrupt olive oil market, is complicated to say the least, and often relies on the strenous efforts of small farmers and workers who care about making olive oil. “All of us have been doing this since we were children, it really is who we are.”